Lady Panthers ready to defend 3A state championship this week
THOMAS — It is never to go into a season as the defending state champion and the favorite to repeat regardless of sport or classification.
The Snake River Lady Panthers found that out right from the beginning of the 2013-14 season.
But despite the trials and tribulations of the season the Panthers again won the 3A District 5 championship last week and will be returning to this week's 3A state basketball tournament to defend their title.
"We have definitely gone through our fair share of ups and downs and growing pains this season," Snake River head coach Rich Dunn said after last week's district title game. "We did not play the way a lot of people including ourselves that we would or could at times. But when it came down to district play and the district tournament these girls picked it up and I give them all the credit in the world for doing so."
To start the season the Panthers had to find a way to replace both guards from last year's title team Madison Pilster and Kylie Coby, and find a way to get the new players to mesh the three senior starters from last season.
Scout Baldwin, Makena Shelley and Brylie Bair were going to be the anchors of the team but finding those two players to round out the starting five was going to be critical to the Panthers success.
Luckily for Dunn and his coaching staff the crop of young players in the program was deep. And combines with the returning bench players gave the Panthers a promising team.
Joining the three seniors in the lineup would be junior Ivy Goff and a rotating batch of players that included Maegan Peace and Sierra Mortensen.
But the Panthers stumbled out of the gate to a 3-5 record including losing a heartbreaking one-point game to rival Blackfoot and handing what was then a winless Shelley squad their first win of the season.
"We have absolutely had our good games andy bad games during the season," Dunn said. "We had games where we came out and looked great and others where I was not sure exactly what we were doing."
The early struggles caught much of the 3A ranks off guard and saw Snake River fall out of the 3A media poll early in the season.
While a shock to the Panthers faithful, the dropping out of the media poll may have been the best thing to happen for the team.
"We are one of the worst teams you have ever seen, tell everyone that," Dunn joked during a midseason interview. "We want to fly under the radar."
Fly under the radar they did.
Snake River used it patented aggressive pressure defense to win its fair share of close games.
But what killed Snake River more often that not this season was the inability to generate offense.
"The difference about this team as opposed to last year is the offensive struggles," Dunn said. "Last year we had kids step up every night offensively, this year we struggled to get in a flow early in games and it affected us the entire game."
A lot of night's the Panthers struggled to get to 40 points.
But over the final weeks of the season the Panthers began to come together and finished the season winning nine of their final 10 games including an overtime win over American Falls in the district title game, a game in which they trailed by eight at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
"We found a way to win,' Dunn said. "That was the difference in the last half of the season, we found ways to win games. It wasn't always pretty but we got it done."
Finding a way to win games is going to be the key for the Panthers success in the state tournament.
"We have kids that have played on the big stage before and that is when they play their best," Dunn said of his seniors. "We are going to need those three to step up for us, they are leaders and the team follows their lead."
The Panthers 13-9 record is definitely one that does not scare most opponents, and frankly the Panthers don't care.
"We just wanted to get back to state and see what happens," Dunn said. "Is what we do a secret? No. We just need to control what we can every time out."
Snake River opens the state tournament against Timberlake on Thursday night at Middleton High School.
Joining the Panthers and Timberlake on the lower half of the bracket are Homedale and Teton, a team Snake River lost two twice during the season.
The top half of the bracket features three of the top five teams in the media poll including number one Sugar-Salem and number two Filer. The two teams open the tournament against each other on Thursday afternoon.
Fruitland and Priest River round out the field.
It is tough to crown the Panthers as repeat champs with the field they will have to work through during the week. But as well as the team has been playing in the last few weeks the Panthers will absolutely make some noise during the weekend.
Snake River and Timberlake tip-off at 6:15 p.m. on Thursday at Middleton High School.